Memory: A Triptych
By Robert Root
Music when soft voices die
Vibrates in the memory
—Percy Bysshe Shelley
It began to rain around midnight. In occasional moments of semi-wakefulness throughout the rest of the night I heard it beat against the windows and the siding on the garage. It was constant, persistent, regular. When I rose, just before dawn, the sky growing lighter, the rain growing lighter, I peered through the blinds at the glistening driveway and street and patches of lawn. I could see raindrops plashing softly in puddles.
Then I thought that these were April showers I’d been hearing and, before I could even acknowledge to myself that I’d had that thought, I was hearing the song in my head. “Though April showers may come your way, they bring the flowers that bloom in May, so if it’s raining, have no regrets, because it isn’t raining rain, you know, it’s raining violets.” The song didn’t stop with the first verse but as I stood there, it played in my mind all the way through—I waited for it to finish before I left the window. I recognized the inflections and intonations of Al Jolson’s recording, the one I’d first heard my mother play in my childhood, the one I’d played on my own Jolson albums decades later. For a little while I stood smiling out at the rain, listening to the song playing in my head. Later in the day I sang it out loud all the way through as I strolled in sunshine to the mailbox, sang it alone in the car on the way to the supermarket and also on the way back.
Nothing extraordinary in this, of course. Particularly in spring, when I notice robins again, I’m apt to launch into “When the red, red robin comes bob, bob, bobbin’ along,” usually trying to imitate Jolson’s performance. Some mornings I wake up with a song from the previous day’s cardio class in the background of my consciousness, Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” for example, or Elvis’s “Bossa Nova Baby,” or the Zac Brown Band’s “Where the Boat Leaves From.” You know how a song can stick with you through the day. But whenever those tunes replay themselves on an automatic loop in my brain, they’ve been triggered by my having recently heard the recordings. Looking out at the rain I might have thought of “Rhythm of the Rain” by the Cascades or “Raindrops” by Dee Clark or “Rain on the Roof” by the Lovin’ Spoonful, recordings that come into my head only now, through a deliberate search for examples. But this was different. What would make me aware that it was April when I rose? Why did that song seem to be poised at the threshold of my consciousness, waiting for me to open the blind and behold the rain?
There’s something here I don’t understand about memory. It’s as if memory—my memory—has a separate existence housed somewhere in my subconscious. Most of the time it seems passive, a repository of images and sounds and language dormant until roused to life by my will—my conscious effort to recall items of information (what was that song about the rhythm of the rain? who recorded “Raindrops”? what did the cover of my mother’s Jolson album look like?) But here memory seemed active, even assertive, insisting that I pay attention to something I hadn’t thought about for years and years. As if it decided this was a good occasion to bring forward something long neglected but still present, still stored, impossible to discard.